After feeling completely immersed in the world that Brit Bennett created for her second novel, The Vanishing Half, I was keen to dive into her much lauded debut novel, The Mothers.
I had no expectations for what I thought this book was going to reveal to me. As the title suggests this book focuses on motherhood, but it does so from a range of angles that make you think long and hard about the choices that you make as a mother, and how these choices can have deep and long-lasting effects on the children of these mothers, as well as others.
It could be argued that first and foremost “the mothers” refers to the church mothers in the novel who are the narrators. Anyone familiar with the concept of church aunties will instantly recognise these women as the all-seeing and all-knowing, elderly Black women who dedicate their lives to the church. These church mothers are the first to know all the latest gossip concerning the congregation at the community church in Oceanside, California that is at the heart of this novel. Through reading this novel I felt as though “the mothers” were welcoming me into their domain as they felt so at ease divulging the deepest and darkest secrets of the congregation to me.
At its core, this story showcases how different people are deeply touched and affected by the lives of their mothers and how this in turn affects the next generation of mothers. It is also a story that focuses on how profoundly love and loss can be felt, and how neither of these emotions ever completely disappears after they have been felt so intensely. Bennett explores this through two of the central characters in the book – Nadia and Aubrey.
Nadia’s character arc was very interesting to me. Her mother’s suicide when she was seventeen had a profound impact on her. From that moment on she constantly reflects on and tries to dig deeper into her mother’s life and possibly her psyche. She constantly examines the choices her mother made – including her mother’s choice to have her at seventeen – and starts to view her own life as the reason her mother tried to kill herself. Many who experience the loss of a loved one will question what could have gone better in that person’s life, what could have possibly happened differently to them which might have meant that they would still be alive, and what they might have done differently that could have kept that person alive. These feelings of guilt, which are often undeserved, are a common side-effect of grieving a loved one.
After finding out that she is pregnant at seventeen Nadia decides to have an abortion. At this point she is still grieving the death of her mother and is compelled by a desire to venture on a different path to her mother. I found the scenes Bennett wrote which described Nadia having an abortion to be very thoughtful and detailed. The healthcare professionals that advised Nadia seemed caring and always informed her that they were asking her questions not to judge, but simply to do their jobs properly. There is also a very moving scene where Nadia is very clearly not going to be picked up by who she asks to collect her, and so an abortion clinic worker arranges for a student volunteer to drop her home. It was extremely comforting to read scenes where a woman was fully able to use her agency to choose to have an abortion without being judged or being treated with disdain by the very people who would be allowing her choice to be realised.
Nadia’s relationship with her mother is contrasted against Aubrey’s relationship with her own mother. We quickly learn that Aubrey had a troubled childhood and had experienced sexual assault and neglect because her mother consistently chose many troubled men over her own daughter. It is clear to see that Aubrey desperately wants a family that loves and appreciates her. Aubrey’s story was difficult to read. She comes across as a kind-hearted person who simply wants to experience the sort of wholesome love and affection that her mother could never give her.
It was incredibly moving to witness the decisions that these women made, and how these were inextricably linked to how they had been deeply affected and touched by their respective mothers’ lives and choices. Upon finishing The Mothers, I couldn’t help but think about how true it is that our relationship with our mothers leaves an indelible mark on our lives and the paths that we choose to take. Whether or not we have experienced the same things as Nadia and Aubrey, it is clear to see that this is the overarching message that Bennett wants to leave us with upon finishing this powerful debut.
Rating – 3.5/5